In 1969 there were two movies about the infamous Hole-In-The-Wall Gang: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Given the shared subject matter, it was no surprise that the films shared certain similarities: the lamenting of a lost age, fine action sequences, ace performances from legendary character actor Strother Martin. But while Peckinpah’s picture played as straight, blood-spattered drama, Hill’s film contained things not often seen in westerns. Like playful banter. And bicycles. And a sequence during which said bicycle is ridden while someone warbles about how raindrops keep falling on his head.
It wasn’t so much the film’s celebration of male bonding that made if unusual – after all, pardners had been a part of westerns as long as Stetsons. But the quantum leap was that no one before had ever pulled off this act with so much style. Previously, two men who hung around together were cool laconic co-riders, but Butch and Sundance were buddies – and the blend of wise-ass humour, hijinks and gunplay was the film’s crowning achievement.
Of course, much of its greatness stems from William Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplay. While Peckinpah’s picture changed the names of the legendary bandits, Goldman stuck to the facts. No, he didn’t mention that having been raised by parents from the north of England, Butch spoke with a thick Lancashire accent, and neither did he dwell upon the lack of any provable last resting place for the dynamic duo. But why let historical accuracy get in the way of scenes like Cassidy trying to hold up a Bolivian bank with a six-shooter and a phrase book – “This is a stick up! Este es un robo!” And why have Butch mumble in a dialect indecipherable to Middle American when you can have him laying down lines like, “I don’t mean to be a sore loser, but when it’s done, if I’m dead, kill him”?
Goldman’s delicious dialogue sits astride a superbly streamlined story. As the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang’s leaders, Butch and Sundance are among the most wanted men in America. Hunted across the wilderness by legendary Indian tracker Lord Baltimore, the boys, together with Sundance’s girlfriend Etta Place (The Graduate’s Katherine Ross) decamp to South America where they see a way to continue their felonious activities beyond the reach of the US government but, alas, within the grasp of the entire Bolivian army.
The cinematic journey from the high chaparral to their final moments in the high Andes mixes traditional western conventions with more fanciful material. Of the new stuff, the sepia photo montage works a damn sight better than *that* Bacharach & David song, and as for the routine material, it doesn’t come across as such since Hill’s handling is so expert – the pursuit across the desert doesn’t slacken for a second. The stunts are good too – in fact the famous leap into the river has been copied so many times new, it almost looks clichéd.
The gun work, however, still feels very fresh. This is partially down to their being much gunplay but very little blood spilt, since our heroes would rather kick people in the balls than blow them away with a casual tug of the trigger. But no matter how spectacular the action is, it never detracts from the relationship between Newman (originally cast to play Sundance) and Redford (who only got the part of the Kid after Warren Beatty turned it down). And while the gun fighting’s good, the real zingers are there in the exchanges. Butch asks Sundance, “Is that what you call giving cover?” “Is that what you call running?” the Kid replies.
With Butch Cassidy wining a hatful of Academy Awards and favourable reviews the world over, Hill, Newman and Redford reteamed four years later to make The Sting. Playing upon the stars’ on-screen rapport, the film delivered financially and secured four further Oscars. Well-crafted as it was, there was a distinct feeling that Hill had failed to rescale heights previously conquered.
And years later, the mountain still remains unclimbed. Because it doesn’t matter how often Hollywood reheats the buddy movie or whichever odd couple the execs throw together, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid will remain like a feces-flavoured Cornetto – pretty damn hard to lick.